If the public discourse in the United States is any indication, then people in the US mean different things by ‘fake news’. Naturally, then, it is time to agree on a definition of ‘fake news’. While we’re at it, let’s distinguish ‘fake news’ from other terms.
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
1. Let’s Agree On Terms
As I see it, we will need to distinguish between at least three terms: fake news, conspiracy theory, and journalism.
A Definition of ‘Fake News’
Also known as “fictional news”. Characterized by outlandish stories — sometimes about paranormal and supernatural events. Any explicit claims to truth are obviously belied by their only semi-serious and comedic tone. Examples include many of the cover stories of the Weekly World News as well as some of the satirical punchlines of The Daily Show.
A Definition of ‘Conspiracy Theory’
Bad explanations designed to glorify their author and undermine the author’s perceived nemeses. Sometimes unfalsifiable. Alas, believed by many people. Examples are voluminous. Examples include certain explanations of the assignation of John F. Kennedy and InfoWars’ Alex Jones’s claims that the Sandy Hook shootings were staged.
A Definition of ‘Journalism’
Professional gathering and reporting of information to society. Sometimes journalism publishes errors. And then it publishes corrections as soon as possible. (Errors ≠ satire, fiction, lies, etc.). Most people rely on some form of journalism. So, ideally, journalists are free to investigative and criticize powerful people and groups; And, ideally, the powerful people and groups do not use their power to undermine journalists’ freedom or credibility. Because when the press is not free and trusted to do so, crime, corruption, and wrongdoing can go unnoticed or unchecked.
Obviously, we can disagree about the nuances of each term and its use. But if we want to have any meaningful discourse about the news, then we cannot let our disagreement get out of hand. That brings me to our next point.
2. Let’s Agree on the Terms of Discourse
Our agreement about discourse should also be threefold. First, we should agree to distinguish between these terms and to use the same definitions. If we cannot agree on definitions, then we should at least ask each other to clarify the meanings of the terms above whenever we use them.
Second, when asked to clarify our use of a term — e.g., ‘fake news’ — we should (i) clearly explain how we are using the term and (ii) explain why our use of the term is merited.
Third, we should not lazily resort to defensive or rhetorical tactics during the discourse. When there is misunderstanding or disagreement, then we should work hard to ask good questions and provide helpful answers. We should speak clearly and interpret each other charitably. Moreover, we should regularly remind ourselves: We’re not enemies; we’re in this together.
3. Further Reading
Of course, there’s a literature on all of this. Interested readers can scratch the surface of that literature by reading, say, Wikipedia entries on
So what do you think? Are these distinctions enough? Would you define these terms differently? Would you categorize things in an entirely different way? Let us know in the comments.
(All images from this post are in the public domain.)